Journalists fear gag by Berlusconi

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The Independent Online
SOME of Italy's best-known television journalists took to the streets yesterday in a battle that will test the democratic credibility of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Can the media magnate who owns half the country's television channels give Italy a genuinely independent, pluralistic broadcasting system?

The battle started after remarks by Mr Berlusconi on Tuesday, in which he appeared to try to make the state-owned RAI broadcasting corporation reflect the government line. The RAI, he declared at a press conference, was 'anomalous . . . I think there is not a single democratic country in which a public broadcasting service goes against the majority that returned the government of that country.'

In the next breath, he said it was absurd that it 'should be deeply in debt and obliged to seek state help' - which some took to mean that if it did not change, it would not get state money.

Asked whether it was 'anomalous' that the Prime Minister should control three of the country's main television channels, he admitted it was. But he maintained that it was not undemocratic and said opinion polls proved that the public shared his views. His remarks have divided Italians deeply.

'Italy will soon be under a regime,' the conservative daily La Voce said. Mr Berlusconi 'has thrown off his mask,' said Leoluca Orlando, leader of La Rete, an anti-Mafia party.

'The RAI must not become the megaphone of the majority parties and their leaders,' said Achille Occhetto, leader of the former Communist PDS.

Mr Berlusconi 'has said clearly that besides his own channels he wants the three public ones (run by RAI) . . . he is insatiable', a Green spokesman said.

Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, growled that 'whatever damage the RAI has done, it is nothing compared to that done by Fininvest (Mr Ber lusconi's television company). Berlusconi manipulates his television channels worse than the RAI.' Mr Bossi's opinion matters to Mr Berlusconi. The Northern League is part of his ruling coalition and he will need its votes to make changes. Mr Berlusconi's supporters, on the whole, backed him, and some demanded that the RAI board resign 'out of shame'.

The battle will come to a head in the next couple of weeks when the future of the whole broadcasting system, including Mr Berlusconi's channels, will have to be tackled by the government.

The RAI is virtually bankrupt as it struggles to recover after being used for decades as the tool of the now-defunct old political parties. They stuffed it with their proteges, decided what it should and should not say, and ran up a dizzying deficit. It is the nearest thing Italy has to a public broadcasting service. The RAI's third channel news programmes - the ones Mr Berlusconi detests most - are openly left-wing.

At the same time, Mr Berlusconi's editors, even the most critical, make no attempt to disguise their political support for their boss.

'The question of information is now the central issue of our democracy,' said the National Journalists' Federation.

As the RAI's journalists demonstrated outside the Prime Ministers office yesterday, Lilli Gruber, one of the best-known anchor women, declared that public broadcasting 'should be the watchdog for the citizens, not the poodle of the powerful'. The next weeks will show what kind of dog Mr Berlusconi really wants.